HL Deb 16 December 1994 vol 559 cc1469-72

Lord Ezra asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, as reported in the Financial Times on 8th December, the Secretary of State for Employment negotiated a compromise in Brussels on the draft directive on part-time workers and then voted against it.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, my right honourable friend did no such thing. The German Presidency had tabled a compromise proposal on part-time work. My right honourable friend considered this very carefully, as he had undertaken to do, but concluded that he would not accept it.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord has just said, but is it not correct that the Secretary of State for Employment had indicated during the discussions that he might consider a modified proposal and that it was deliberately watered down because of that? Would it not also be correct to say that as a result of those proceedings, much resentment was created among our partners in the European Union? Furthermore, is not the vetoing of that modified resolution by the Secretary of State for Employment academic in view of the previous House of Lords' judgment enhancing the rights of part-time workers on the ground of sex discrimination as the majority of part-time workers are women?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, it is important to make clear that throughout that debate in the Council my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made it quite clear that he was opposed to the proposals and could not see a way in which we could accept them. Nevertheless, because we act in the Council of Ministers in good faith and although we had made our position entirely clear, we said that we would consider any proposals that might be brought forward to see whether we might be able to accept them, although we could not see any likelihood of being able to do so.

On the noble Lord's point about the relationship of the House of Lords' judgment and the part-time work directive, we do not want European law to introduce a degree of inflexibility into the framework of labour relations in this country. That is because we want to he able to continue to have as flexible a labour market as we can and because we believe that that is in the interests of those in work and out of work in this country.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that any increase in the cost of part-time employment would inevitably lead to more unemployment in this country? Therefore, does he agree that my right honourable friend was entirely correct in refuting that suggestion?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that point. He is right that the more burdens that are placed in the way of, and on to, those who want to provide jobs, the fewer the number of jobs that will result.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, does not the noble Lord recall that as long ago as December 1990 a Select Committee of your Lordships' House, representative of all political parties and of none in your Lordships' House, made a very strong representation that there should be support for the draft directive? When will the Government learn that they should take advice from people who have considered these matters in a great deal of detail? Why do the Government persist in their view that you can create employment only by driving down conditions for workers to a sweat-shop level? Surely we know by now that that does not produce employment; all that it produces is increasing misery for the people involved.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment said recently, what we want to see is a highly skilled, highly paid workforce. There is only one way of achieving that in the real world—and that is by having businesses which can afford to pay the level of remuneration which we would all like to see.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, does not the Minister understand that the highly skilled workers in this country to whom he has just referred are on lower rates of pay than their counterparts in Europe? Does not he also understand that employers over here are undercutting companies in Europe because of our depressed wage rates, which gives our companies a financial advantage? How long does the noble Lord think that the rest of Europe will tolerate that position when they are being beaten in some respects by what are termed "scab" conditions?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am reassured to hear that the noble Lord accepts that the state of British industry is such that it is successfully competing in Europe and obtaining work. As I have already said, that is the way in which jobs will be created. As I said earlier, the only way in which we can ensure that we have highly paid jobs in this country is to have firms which are generating high profits, and they do that by competing not only in the European market, but in the wider world market in the post-GATT world.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is it not a fact that the now open divisions in the Cabinet on European Union policy as expressed by Mr. Portillo are not only undermining our relations with our European allies, but contributed to the electoral disaster in Dudley yesterday? Would it not be much wiser for the Government to base their European Union policies on the fact that the overwhelming majority in Parliament is in favour of Britain being at the heart of Europe instead of basing their policies on the tiny minority in Parliament whom they continually appease and who, in their hearts, are against membership of the European Union?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend agrees with my right honourable friend the Prime Minister that we should be at the heart of Europe. That is at the core of government policy.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that some of the countries of Europe, of our partners in Europe, have the highest non-wage labour costs in the world and it is this fact which causes Europe to be in the slow lane when one looks at the other economies which are emerging in the world, and that the kind of action on which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on taking in Brussels on this occasion is precisely the sort of action that allows unemployment in this country to be falling faster than anywhere else in Europe?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am afraid that I am unable to verify the proposition put forward by my noble friend that some of the other member states in the European Union have the highest on-costs for labour in the world, but it is undoubtedly the case that in other member states they are high. As is clear from the communiqué issued at the conclusion of the Essen Summit, it is necessary to reduce burdens on employment and encourage competition to improve the state of the economy in the Union.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does paying economical wages to part-time workers on the boards of companies and quangos contribute to full employment in this country?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the level of remuneration for board members is a matter for the companies concerned.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the majority of part-time workers are women, and that women perceive this as yet another measure by the Government to keep them at poverty level wages and to undercut employers who are prepared to pay decent rates of pay?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the noble Baroness illustrates a paradox. More part-time workers are women than men, and yet, as I understand it, she advocates a policy which will make part-time work less rather than more likely for them.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, it seems to me that the noble Lord did not deal with the point I raised about the House of Lords judgment. Will the effect of that judgment be similar to the effect of the Community's draft directive?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, no. That is not the case. The basis of the House of Lords judgment was a finding of fact that in the particular circumstances of the case the working of the legislation was such that it amounted to discrimination against women. The Government wish to keep their options open so that in the future if, for example, the relationship between men and women in the labour market were to change, they would have the opportunity to deal with those matters along the lines of the legislation that has hitherto been in place.

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